To the Memory of My Beloved
by Ben Jonson
Where It All Goes Down
The Beginning of the End (of Renaissance Drama)
"To the Memory of My Beloved" is pretty inextricably intertwined with the historical time period in which it was written. In case you're curious, that would be England in the early 1620s. But there's another time period Shmoop wants to draw your attention to before we write this off as a memorial poem and move on. And that is the age of Renaissance drama.
In historical terms, the author (Jonson) and the subject (Shakespeare) lived at essentially the same time, but in the literary world, the two men fell on very different sides of a literary movement: the rise and decline of Renaissance drama. Shakespeare, "the wonder of our stage," wrote many of the works that revitalized and electrified the theater in early modern England. He changed everything. The dude was a defining and invigorating theatrical force, and for many—then as now—his works epitomize everything theater was about in the early 1600s.
Jonson, born a few years after Shakespeare, embraces theater while it's at its apex, or peak, and the only place to go from there is down. Especially when compared to Shakespeare's plays, Jonson's work is dry, hypercritical, and lacks the universal insight and whimsy that make Shakespeare's work enjoyable for a wide range of audience members. This is not to say that Jonson's plays didn't enjoy a certain degree of popularity—they totally did—but they lack the depth, soul, and scope of Shakespeare's work. Jonson's plays, perhaps, were not for all time, but of an age and "To the Memory of My Beloved" very likely has more to memorialize than just the man behind the magic.